Just a quick warning: this (very long) post is going to be about a topic that is not necessarily for everyone: (peri)menopause. So if you are not interested in reading about that, this post is not for you. Otherwise, let’s move on without further ado.
I am now of a certain age and over the past year and a half, maybe two years, I’ve begun to notice certain changes in myself. At first, I just figured maybe it was stress, or those odd, unexplained things that sometimes ail you and then disappear as suddenly as they appear. As for my thoughts occasionally being a bag of ferrets – well, that’s not entirely new to me though the degree to which was definitely a few levels beyond what I was used to.
The first hint I had, though, of something feeling truly different was when I had my first, honest to god, uncontrollable mood swing. I was suddenly, inexplicably, and without warning pissed off at everyone and everything and for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. And then as suddenly as the Grump-from-Hell showed up, she was gone again. For me, that was weird, because I don’t get mood swings; I didn’t get them when I was pregnant, I’ve never had them when I had my periods. But my mood this time was literally beyond my control: it was like I had nothing to say about these feelings, no way to calm down, just … nothing! I felt like one of those ants that gets invaded by a parasite and then just turn into zombies, except I was an angry zombie and I had no spores growing out of my dead head (thank goodness).
Anyway, that’s when I started to take all those changes a little more seriously. What follows is an enumeration of some of the things I’ve been going through. The reason I’m writing this post is because this is a pretty turbulent time for me and I imagine I’m not the only one who feels this way. At times, when another symptom hits or the same symptom hits again I become downright suspicious of my body: “What is this pain/discomfort/weirdness? I’ve never had/felt this before. Is this normal?? Is my body trying to kill me?”
As always: this post only outlines my personal experiences. Every menopause is different, though there are common signs and symptoms. If you are concerned, contact your doctor. Some healthcare systems actually have doctors specializing in menopause.
Enough introduction. Here we go.
I thought I’d start with a very common symptom: hot flashes. My core temperature is pretty low, and I am more often cold than warm. And my first hot flash felt bizarre. Literally from one minute to the next I felt flushed, with hot skin, began sweating, and it was like nothing I’d felt before. It didn’t last long, though it felt plenty long to me. I vividly remember trying to cool myself down by standing in front of the freezer with the door open. More about hot flashes (also night sweats) here.
The next thing I started noticing is that, even though I am still pretty flexible – probably thanks to yoga – I have these periods of stiffness in the joints. From one day to the next I will suddenly have inflexible hips, very little neck mobility, or stiff shoulders. This stiffness can last anywhere from days to weeks, and it makes every yoga session an exciting new adventure (that was sarcasm). Here is some more information about age and menopause related joint pain.
Weird and Unexplained Aches and Pains
I’ve noticed some weird aches and pains not related to joints as well. A sudden cramp here, a sudden stab of pain there. Nothing worrying, but rather annoying. If you are experiencing unexplained aches and pains and you are worried, contact your doctor. Don’t hesitate, just call. That’s what they’re there for.
This is a funny one. Not funny-ha-ha, funny-weird.
All of my life, any weight gained always went straight to my hips. I’m not kidding: nothing ever, ever went to my stomach. Then one morning all of a sudden there it was: a tummy! No matter how many sit-ups or Russian twists or airplanes I do, that fat ain’t goin’ nowhere!
I’m not complaining, it’s just not anything I’ve ever had any experience with. I’ve literally never had to worry about my tummy; it was always just flat. Now, my butt, that’s a whole different story…
The abdominal weight gain is apparently a function of your body looking to replace the estrogen whose levels are dropping during menopause, and the fat provides that. This article explains how that works, exactly. For me, the only upside I can see is that it means I need to update my wardrobe. Mostly, though, I have been having to get used to a different body with a different shape. It’s weird for me and it’s not easy, not least because my moods are also affected during this time and so feeling anxious about the way I look comes a lot more easily. (More about this later.)
Now this is the one symptom that is really tripping me up. Until a few years ago, my breasts were just my breasts: part of my body, part of my shape. I have had some issues with them (cysts) but on the whole they were just part of me and I didn’t worry about them. That’s changed.
Sometimes I have entire weeks when my breasts just hurt, sometimes one and sometimes both. Like a lot of women, I regularly self-examine (here’s how to do that and what to look and feel for) and a while back I felt a lump. I called the women’s breast cancer department in my hospital directly (this hospital throws up no barriers for women who are concerned about possible breast cancer – if you feel something, they will schedule you in for an exam as soon as possible) and had a full exam, including a mammogram and an ultrasound, and was then seen by a doctor who also performed a hands-on exam. I was cleared, but it turned out I did have another one of those cysts I mentioned earlier.
Moral of the story: I was lucky and fine, and cysts are sometimes painful, and any lump you feel in there is likely to cause you some worry. And I won’t lie: there are times when I seriously contemplate whether one (or both) of my breasts is going to make me sick or, even worse, kill me. It’s not a fun way to feel about a part of your body.
As my doctor told me during my follow-up appointment: breasts react immediately to hormonal changes, and sometimes that can feel pretty damn worrying. Do keep in mind in all of this that the same hormonal changes that your breasts are responding to can also be responsible for enhancing those worries, sometimes creating some real emotional turmoil. Speaking of…
Worries and Feelings
The worrying. Ugh. And the feels. Sometimes all the feels at once! Hormonal shifts during menopause often result in mood swings but also mood disorders and based on my own experience this is not something to take lightly. All this worrying and the sheer force of the emotions that well up sometimes out of nowhere is definitely not something I think I could have prepared for. Like undoubtedly everyone else I have had times where I worried about things and sometimes perhaps excessively, but this is of a whole different level.
For me, regular exercise and meditation level me out a little bit, but there are also times I decide to just ride the wave, put on a sad movie and just let it all out, or do a happy dance when the hormones decide it’s time to feel giddy. Mostly, though, not being on an even keel half the time is exhausting and because I would like to be able to function as a not-insane adult there are times when I use up a lot of energy managing my moods.
Here’s another one I wasn’t ready for: my brain slowing down or just downright taking a mini break in the middle of my day. Reading a paragraph and promptly forgetting what I just read. Or reading a paragraph but having the information bounce off my brain as though it was shielded against content somehow. Or remembering there’s something I have to do and then immediately forgetting to do that thing. Six times a day. That same thing. Or going into another room to get something and forgetting what I was going to get as soon as I am through the door. Or putting my phone down somewhere and spending the next hour looking for it. Or starting a sentence and then not –
The official term for this type of “brain fog” is menopause-related cognitive impairment, and this too shall pass, but while it is there it can be seriously disruptive, and not a little scary. As I have a family member with Alzheimer’s, the specter of dementia looms large and with the hormone-induced increase in worrying, this, again, is not exactly a fun symptom to have.
Yay. Migraines. Such fun. I am used to migraines, as I’ve been getting them since I was 19. The thing is, I didn’t get them very often. Now, the intensity of the migraine itself is less (though there’s still no painkiller that will even make a dent in the pain), but I get them more often, and they bring an increase in brain fog with them. So I am pretty much functionally impaired at least one day a month these days.
Difficult and Irregular Periods
Even though this is what menopause is all about – the end of periods – I’ve saved this one for last, because it sort of ties all the symptoms I have discussed so far together. As I recently discovered when I talked to a friend about this, I’ve been pretty lucky with my periods for most of my life; they’ve always been extremely regular and they have barely bothered me at all. Sure, there was blood, sometimes a lot of it, but hardly any cramps, no mood swings, no fatigue, no headaches, no bloatedness, nothing! That began to change a little under 2 years ago. First with increased moodiness and fatigue, and cramps, then migraines and pelvic pain were added, and now I regularly have the full spectrum: bloated, hot flashes, migraines, fatigue, mood swings, diarrhea, cramps, pelvic pain. Quite the smorgasbord, no?
And on top of all that, my periods are becoming more unpredictable: sometimes a little ahead of or behind schedule, rarely just weeks early or late, sometimes light, sometimes heavy … it’s anyone’s guess, really.
Changes in periods can feel very concerning. Like my breasts, I feel like my uterus could just as easily pull a fast one on me and develop abnormal cells, with symptoms that can also be attributed to (peri)menopause. Would I notice if something was wrong? (Once more, I would like to refer to the paragraph dealing with hormones turning your usually rational brain into a bag of ferrets.) Again, if you’re worried, contact your doctor.
So, that’s it: a run-down of my experience with the run-up to menopause. It’s a rollercoaster, and there are as many different experiences of menopause as there are women. And while it can be a time of physical and emotional turmoil, it is also a natural process and it will end at some point. Having said that, please remember that just because menopause is a natural process that doesn’t mean you have to suffer with it. There are treatments to lessen the impact of these hormonal, physical and emotional changes and asking for them is nothing to feel bad about.
As premenopausal, perimenopausal, menopausal and post-menopausal symptoms are being taken more seriously and are studied and researched, and as this part of women’s lives is finally becoming less hidden, there are things to take comfort in. First , we know a lot more now about what happens to women’s bodies in this phase of our lives. Second, there are treatments that can help mitigate some of the disruption caused by menopause and the time leading up to and away from it. And finally, we can talk about this, about how we feel physically and emotionally, and hopefully knowing each other’s stories will help us feel more supported and less overwhelmed during such a turbulent time in our lives.